Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 2.8% of the Australian population, yet they account for 28% of Australia’s prison population.
Indigenous adults are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, and aboriginal juveniles 26 times more likely.
This makes First Australians the most incarcerated people on the planet, with Indigenous women being the fastest-growing prison population.
Since the Royal Commission in 1991 there have been at least 438 Indigenous deaths in custody (both prison and police).
These include from natural causes yet a significant number show inadequate medical care. Calls have been made for greater scrutiny of the justice system, in particular regarding avoidable deaths, such as the death of Ms Dhu, Tanya Day and David Dungay.
Ms Dhu was taken into police custody for an unpaid fine after police responded to her call about her partner violating an apprehended violence order in 2014. She shortly died in police custody in South Hedland prison after 'unprofessional and inhumane' treatment by the police, the inquest heard.
Tanya Day, 55, a Yorta Yorta woman sustained a fatal injury after she fell, unnoticed, in police custody on 5 December 2017 in Melbourne. She was arrested after falling asleep on a train from Echuca to Melbourne for the offence of being found drunk in public. Officers told the coronial inquest they were acting out of concern for her welfare, yet only one officer considered – then dismissed – seeking medical treatment. The coroner Caitlin English said: “Ms Day’s death was clearly preventable had she not been arrested and taken into custody.”
As the Black Lives Matter Movement swept across the world, the death of George Floyd in America was a painful echo of the death of David Dungay in New South Wales in December 2015. The 22 year-old diabetic Dunghutti man said “I can’t breathe” 12 times before he died while being restrained by five prison guards after refusing to stop eating a packet of biscuits.
To which an officer replied: “If you can talk, you can breathe”.
The movement has brought renewed media attention to the plight of Australia's Aboriginal people, triggering large protests nationwide.
The lack of reliable statistics was a recurring theme of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Recommendation 41, under Adequacy of Information, called for states and territories to keep a statistical database documenting all deaths in custody and report annually to parliament.
The national deaths in custody program was established at the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in 1992 to fulfil this role and reports every one to two years. The two latest reports were published in April 2019 and covered the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years. Of the 74 deaths in custody recorded by the AIC in 2016-17, 16 were Indigenous people.
Up to date information on deaths in custody is difficult to find; individual agencies can be reluctant to provide statistics to media organisations or researchers. This creates a gap in public knowledge, made worse by increasing delays in having public inquests.
Common issues raised in coronial reports:
Whether a person received medical care prior to their death;
Whether they were denied care that the coroner found they ought to have received.
If there was documented evidence of cognitive impairment or mental illness;
Whether the individual had alcohol or non-prescribed drugs in their system;
Whether the agency responsible followed all the appropriate procedures.
Whether the agency responsible issued any reprimands in connection to the case;
Whether anyone from the agency responsible was charged with a crime in connection to the death in custody.
Elaine Pearson, Australia Director Human Rights Watch.
Elaine Pearson, Australia Director Human Rights Watch.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar reminded Australians that systemic racism is a prevalent issue in Australia, and not just seen across the Pacific.
She said: "We continue to see the over-policing of Australian Indigenous people. Many are introduced to the justice system at a young age and remain in its grip for life. Over incarceration is arguably the most prominent example of generational and systemic discrimination.
“As we watch with concern at the developments in the USA, we should reflect on the task that remains at hand in Australia and undertake the long overdue reforms to our own justice system.
“For almost 30 years, we have referred to the Royal Commission and its recommendations, many that remain unimplemented. Meanwhile, Indigenous people continue to die in our so-called justice system."
One of the 339 recommendations made in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was an end to issuing arrest warrants for unpaid fines.
Western Australia, the only state to regularly imprison those unable to pay fines, finally passed legislation in 2019 to end the controversial imprisonment.
The death in custody of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu in 2014 was the 'catalyst' for the reform.
Tane Chatfield, 22, died at Tamworth Correctional Centre in September 2017 after being held on remand for two years. He was found unresponsive in his cell with marks on his neck.
At the time, Mr Chatfield's death was ruled a suicide but his family found this difficult to believe.
He finally had an inquest on 13th July 2020 - three years later. The coroner said he may have suffered multiple seizures before he died.
Nurse unit manager Janeen Adams, who attended to Mr Chatfield on his return to prison from hospital, told the inquest she was not made aware he had suffered multiple seizures the previous night. She directed him to rest alone.
Ms Adams said Mr Chatifield appeared "alert and calm", and provided "appropriate" answers to questions.
Bereaved mother, Nioka Chatfield, speaks at Sydney's Invasion Day March 2020 about losing her son Tane in 2017.
On the news of George Floyd's death prime minister Scott Morrison told a Sydney radio station he was glad such things didn’t happen in Australia.
He said: “As upsetting and terrible that the murder that took place [is] – and it is shocking, that also just made me cringe – I just think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia."
“There’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. Australia is not the United States.”
However, federal Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt later commented he was working with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Islander peak organisations on “more ambitious” incarceration and detention targets in a refreshed Closing the Gap agreement - a government strategy aiming to reduce disadvantages among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - at the end of July.
Wyatt emphasised that the responsibility for reducing deaths in custody is shared with the different states, which have responsibility for police and jails.
More than numbers
July, Unknown, WA
6 June, Unknown, Male, 40, WA
29 March, Unknown, Male, 30, VIC
21 March, TC, Female, 40, QLD
02 Jan, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, Female, 37, VIC
09 Nov, Kumanjayi Walker, Male, 19, NT
06 Nov, Unknown, Male, 20, NSW
30 Oct, RN, Male, 39, WA
17 Sept, Joyce Clarke, Female, 37, WA
12 June, JB, Male, 30, WA
09 April, Cherdeena Wynne, Female, 26, WA
14 March, Tafari Walton, Male, 21, NSW
11 Feb, Alf Deon Eades,Male, 46, WA
11 Sept, CD, Male, 16, WA
10 Sept, TS, Male, 17, WA
01 Sept, Nathan Reynolds, Male, 36, NSW
29 June, DK, Male, 34, WA
03 May, Mr Yeeda, Male, 19, WA
10 Feb, TK, Male, 39, QLD
07 Feb, Patrick Fisher, Male, 31, NSW
03 Feb, JH, Male, 23, NSW
22 Dec, Tanya Louise Day, Female, 55, VIC
04 Dec, TMH, Male, 47, WA
22 Sept, Tane Richard Chatfield, Male, 22, NSW
22 August, KG, Male, 47, SA
08 August, JT, Male, 39, NT
04 July, EJW, Male, 35, NSW
25 June, Raymond Noel Lindsay Thomas, Male, 29, VIC
26 May, PR, Male, 50, SA
12 May, Chad Riley, Male, 40, WA
29 March, TAS, Male, 35, NSW
01 March, Jordan Robert Anderson, Male, 23, WA
14 Jan, RPN, Male, 62, NT
14 Dec, KJ, Male, 35, NT
10 Dec, SB, Female, 44, WA
26 Sept, Wayne Fella Morrison, Male, 29, SA
16 Sept, JBM, Male, 44, NT
03 Sept, GLW, Male, 41, VIC
25 August, VB, Male, 31, NT
08 August, EJM, Male, 69, QLD
19 July, Rebecca Maher, Female, 36, NSW
18 June, Fred, Male, 35, WA
27 May, Steven Freeman, Male, 25, ACT
14 May, WMM, Male, 58, QLD
05 April, RJG, Male, 41, NT
04 April, GWVA, Male, 31, SA
30 March, EY, Male, 70, NT
27 Feb, PMB, Male, 42, QLD
20 Feb, JR, Male, 37, NT
26 Jan, CGG, Male, 56, WA 2015
29 Dec, David Dungay Jr, Male, 26, NSW
16 Dec, Mr Jackamarra, Male, 36, WA
02 Dec, AAU, Female, 25, WA
02 Dec, KE, Male, 24, WA
11 Nov, MFTM, Female, 45, NT
02 Nov, Mr Cameron, Male, 26, WA
02 Oct, Shaun Charles Coolwell, Male, 33, QLD
08 Sept, Mr Bell, Male, 28, WA
29 August, JFW, Male, 34, WA
15 August, KJS, Male, 65, NT
05 August, AB, Male, 59, WA
20 June, RB, Male, 40, NT
21 May, Kumanjayi Langdon, Male, 59, NT
10 May, VJR, Male, 47, NSW
09 May, GRA, Male, 48, QLD
16 April, KNK, Male, 68, SA
20 Feb, BBN, Male, 56, NT
12 Feb, CWM, Male, 53, NT
11 Feb, AB, Male, 50, NSW
17 Dec, JLM, Male, 26, ACT
03 Dec, JAA, Male, 79, NT
13 Nov, KMCN, Female, 23, WA
08 Nov, TMM, Male, 54, QLD
31 Oct, KB, Female, 46, NT
25 Oct, RB, Male, 60, NSW
22 Oct, Mr Wallam, Male, 31, WA
04 August, Ms Dhu, Female, 22, WA
10 July, LJR, Male, 45, VIC
27 March, DW, Male, 28, NT
25 Feb, MRB, Male, 57, QLD
08 Feb, KJT, Male, 50, NT
18 Jan, KM, Male, 49, NT
28 Dec, FWD, Male, 43, NSW
26 Dec, JKP, Male, 62, QLD
21 Dec, RCG, Male, 49, WA
02 Nov, NRR, Male, 37, QLD
02 Nov, VBVC, Male, 44, QLD
06 Oct, GWR, Male, 15, WA
17 August, VAC, Male, 63, NT
09 July, RS, Male, 39, NT
14 April, DWW, Male, 31, NSW
15 March, MJK, Male, 48, WA
06 March, Jayden Stafford Bennell, Male, 20, WA
02 Feb, JW, Male, 40, SA
19 Jan, Bud Lord, Male, 39, NSW
24 Dec, KM, Female, 26, NT
23 Dec, KO, Male, 30, NT
22 Dec, KA, Female, 32, NT
30 Nov, Ms Mandijarra, Female, 44, WA
24 Nov, GAM, Male, 48, QLD
07 Nov, CKH, Male, 38, QLD
02 Nov, JJR, Male, 20, WA
26 Sept, DH, Male, 28, NT
25 August, Mr Toby, Male, 45, WA
15 August, RDH, Male, 51, QLD
07 August, TCW, Male, 37, WA
16 June, PB, Female, 21, NSW
11 April, P, Female, 13, QLD
07 April, CN, Male, 26, NT
07 April, KT, Female, 42, NT
03 April, PAC, Male, 55, NT
04 Jan, Kwementyaye Briscoe, Male, 27, NT
03 Nov, EJB, Male, 34, NT
26 Oct, FJV, Male, 26, QLD
24 Oct, Mr Bropho, Male, 81, WA
05 Oct, JLG, Male, 30, SA
03 Sept, DJJ, Male, 0, NSW
14 August, RGW, Male, 52, WA
10 June, MEO, Female, 16, QLD
17 April, HJM, Male, 50, QLD
14 April, BAW, Male, 15, WA
12 March, BN, Male, 33, NT
08 Jan, DJP, Male, 51, WA
24 Nov, PPH, Male, 38, WA
24 Nov, Name suppressed, Male, 20, NSW
11 Nov, Mark Edward Mason, Male, 44, NSW
15 October, KM, Male, 51, NT
08 Oct, SAF, Male, 37, NT
18 September, TLI, Female, 37, QLD
15 Sept, AT, Female, 34, WA
23 August, KJC, Male, 53, VIC
11 August, DJ, Male, 33, NT
12 July, CAS, Male, 30, SA
04 July, ARC, Male, 28, WA
01 June, LJ, Male, 18, NSW
14 May, MMT, Male, 53, QLD
15 April, LV, Male, 27, QLD
12 April, GMC, Male, 57, QLD
22 March, GRW, Male, 39, WA
14 March, DDW, Male, 33, WA
20 Feb, SDC, Male, 18, QLD
14 Feb, BWE, Male, 53, WA
07 Feb, KS, Female, 13, WA
19 Jan, TJ, Male, 41, WA
07 Jan, SWG, Male, 23, NT
23 July, RH, Male, 59, QLD
03 July, DRN, Male, 50, WA
12 June, TAC, Male, 40, QLD
25 April, VNR, Male, 35, SA
16 April, GR, Male, 39, NT
07 April, KB, Male, 18, SA
10 Jan, CT, Male, 32, NT
30 Dec, HN, Male, 24, WA
17 Dec, JET, Male, 64, QLD
20 Sept, AMT, Male, 25, WA
18 Sept, JWR, Male, 30, WA
17 Sept, ZN, Male, 22, NT
22 August, CWP, Male, 22, NT
22 August, IFW, Male, 45, WA
18 August, SL, Male, 32, WA
21 June, DN, Male, 40, WA
25 May, PRJ, Male, 49, NT
02 March, AE, Male, 63, WA
27 Jan, Mr Ward, Male, 46, WA
06 Jan, RTO, Male, 49, QLD
01 Jan, DG, Male, 39, NT
This data was collected from coronial reports, the Guardian Australia's database and through non-profitable organisations.